A Shelbyville man hits a $34.5 million lottery jackpot but then takes pains to hide it from his estranged wife by claiming it covertly.
It was a made-for-TV story that turned out to be too good to be true.
The wife of the purported winner of the Hoosier Lotto's latest jackpot made clear in a local TV interview last week that she wanted her share. And it even took on a legal dimension this week, when a Shelby County court entered the fray, ordering the husband not to spend a dime.
But the winner, instead, is a Shelbyville woman in her 70s, according to her attorney.
The lawyer — his client still wishes to remain anonymous — insisted to The Indianapolis Star on Thursday that the winner had no connection to James Prather, publicized as the potential winner by at least two Indianapolis TV stations.
Prather's name had come to the forefront as rumors swirled around Shelbyville in the days after the Feb. 18 Hoosier Lotto drawing. A week ago, his wife, Ericka, gave the rumors credence, when she said in a television interview that James Prather asked her for a divorce out of the blue and admitted to winning the lottery.
Prather's eventual denial that he had won failed to convince either his wife or her Carmel attorney, Andrew Thompson.
Thompson said Thursday that he still was seeking proof that Prather wasn't the winner.
It wasn't enough that the actual winner's Indianapolis attorney, Geffrey Rainbolt, contacted Thompson earlier Thursday to discuss the matter.
Rainbolt was scratching his head over the confusion surrounding the jackpot.
"I was surprised that confirmation wasn't sought by the news sources reporting the information" about Prather, Rainbolt said. He said he could have confirmed that Prather had no connection to the jackpot if he had been contacted.
He did just that, Rainbolt said, when representatives from national TV programs "Inside Edition," which airs locally on WISH (Channel 8), and ABC's "20/20" called him to check out the story. But he said the Indianapolis station that aired the interview with Ericka Prather — WRTV (Channel 6) — did not contact him.
Kevin Finch, WRTV's news director, did not return a voicemail Thursday.
Attempts to reach James Prather were not successful.
The Star's stories on the Hoosier Lotto jackpot did not mention Prather, focusing instead on the winner's desire for anonymity.
Rainbolt said his client made that choice because of concerns about her safety and security, as well as her family's privacy in a small town.
She opted for the upfront cash payment: nearly $16 million, or $11.4 million after federal and state taxes.
It was Rainbolt who accepted the oversized check from a Hoosier Lottery official at a Feb. 24 news conference. The check was made out to HLT LLC, the limited liability corporation Rainbolt had established to shield his client's identity. HLT stands for Hoosier Lottery Ticket.
But even before that day, rumors naming Prather as the winner had spread quickly around Shelbyville, though it's not clear why he was the focus of speculation.
The Hoosier Lottery announced Feb. 19 that the winning ticket — for a jackpot that tied as the Hoosier Lotto's third-largest — had been sold at Smokers Host in Shelbyville.
The next afternoon, a commenter wrote a simple message on the Shelbyville News' Facebook page: "it was james prather" (sic).
Also on Feb. 20 — four days before Rainbolt claimed the jackpot for his client — WXIN (Fox 59) reported on the buzz around Shelbyville, with talk centering on James Prather as the likely winner.
Lee Rosenthal, the station's news director, said WXIN's reporter learned of Prather's name from the store that sold the winning ticket. It's possible, of course, that the store employee had simply heard the talk around town.
WXIN didn't name Prather in follow-up reports later that week after the winner's attorney came forward.
However, WRTV's interview with Ericka Prather didn't air until after Rainbolt's news conference at Hoosier Lottery headquarters.
In that interview, she said she and James Prather had had an on-and-off relationship, had never divorced, and had two children who lived with her.
She told WRTV of a phone call she had received from her husband earlier that week:
"He goes, 'I got a question. Can we make our divorce final?' And I was like, it was just out of nowhere. I was like, 'Is it because you hit the lottery?' He's like, 'Huh?' and tried to say that he didn't, and then he's like, 'Yeah, I did.' "
A written version of WRTV's report was picked up by The Associated Press and was published on some news websites outside Indiana.
Thompson said Ericka Prather sincerely believed her husband was the winner.
"She wasn't looking for news coverage," he said, "but for a just result."
And the urgency of protecting her interest and that of her children is what led Thompson to seek a temporary restraining order on James Prather's spending — as a precautionary measure — in Shelby Superior Court. A judge granted the motion Monday, Thompson said, but no hearing has been held.
"So if he doesn't have any (winnings)," the attorney said, "obviously it doesn't have any effect."
Just to be sure, The Star asked the Hoosier Lottery if James Prather had attempted to claim any winnings recently in any of its games.
Spokesman Al Larsen said Prather had not submitted any claim.